***SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT***
The sixth season premier of The Big Bang Theory, viewers get to see Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) floating in space. For Big Bang fans who don’t remember, Howard was chosen to go to space with a pair of Russian astronauts last season. He’s also married to lovely and brainy, Bernadette Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch), but still, even in space, must contend with his overbearing mother. Howard’s sick relationship with his mom has been a running gag throughout the show’s run, and it’s one I think, that has run its course – the emasculating, slightly frightening Jewish mama, whose reach even transcends outer space is a little much (and a little stale at this point).
And staleness is an unfortuate feeling the permeates the season opener. It’s no secret that while the audience of TBBT has grown, the quality of the show has wavered. In the fifth season, it went through a perceptible shift from a weird, funny, little comedy to a corporate juggernaut. The shifts were subtle, but there – Jim Parson’s persnickity and obsessive Sheldon is starting to edge toward Steve Urkel/Fonzi territory, and we’re starting to lose him to cartoon-land. Also, the writers have completely failed the always-game Kaley Cuoco, as the gorgeous, but flighty girl next door, Penny. It seems like the scribes don’t know what to do with her anymore – she’s now Leonard’s (Johnny Galecki) plus one, and really doesn’t function as a character anymore – a huge shame because in the first to third season, she was a hugely important part of the show.
But I’m digressing. So Howard’s up in space, and he’s still dealing with his mommy issues, while at the same time becoming henpecked by the increasingly shrill and shrewish Bernadette. I gotta say, I’m not loving this direction that the writers are taking with Bernadette – it started sometime during the last season, when Bernadette’s cute, chirpy voice would make way for a harsh scream. The parallels between Bernadette and her mother-in-law aren’t exactly subtle, and we’re meant to understand that poor Howard is now stuck between two domineering and controlling women – not a great comment on women, and not a great representation of Jewish men, who are too often cast in this dweebish, almost-eunuch role. He’s scared of telling his mom that he and Bernadette are planning to live on their own; she manipulates him with really threadbare Jewish mom guilt. At the same time, he can’t be honest with Bernadette, either, so from the safety of orbiting in outer space, lies to both of them.
While all this is going on, Amy and Sheldon are celebrating their first anniversary. I have to say even though I enjoy the addition of Amy Farrah Fowler, and Mayim Bialik is fantastic in the role (and deserved the Emmy nod), I don’t like Sheldon’s entrance into the dating world. It disrupts a dynamic that TBBT set up in the first season of Sheldon, Leonard, and Penny – the three musketeers, against a judgemental world! And the romantic relationships busted up this funny trio. Also, even though Amy shares many of Sheldon’s qualities (social awkwardness, a brilliant mind, a pathological impulse to be very literal), she’s really likable, so I get a bit sad when Sheldon can’t give her what she needs: a real boyfriend.
For their first date, Sheldon planned a romantic dinner, as per the relationship agreement. But because Sheldon’s Sheldon, he invites Raj (Kunal Nayyar) to join them.
Ah, Raj – despite the creakiness of the show, Raj is really an intriguing character. Because everyone in his social circle has paired up like Noah’s Arc, Raj is the proverbial cheese that stands alone. He can’t seem to find Ms. Right to compliment his personality: sweet, unassuming, slightly effeminate. Because he’s kind of a dandy, the writers do trot out some inoffensive queer-baiting jokes, and Raj has always been suspected by folks in the show of being gay. Assuming that he remains attracted to women, Raj’s pretty-sad life makes for the most compelling and poignant part of the episode.
Raj gets an invite to Sheldon’s romantic date. Amy, understandably, is not happy, and isn’t too shy to voice her displeasure, first to Sheldon, and then to Raj himself. He finally leaves Amy and Sheldon to be alone, and Amy’s trying to be seductive, coyly unbuttoning the top of her shirt and inviting Sheldon for some “dessert,” only Sheldon’s Sheldon, so he answers that he’s just finished some peach cobbler. Amy’s had enough of Sheldon’s lack of intimacy, and tries to storm off, but his stopped by Sheldon’s plaintive plea, “I need you.” Touched, she turns around and Sheldon continues, “you’re my ride.” Fed up, Amy offers Sheldon an ultimatum: say something romantic or she’s gone. And Sheldon offers a loving and touching monologue about his mixed emotions and feelings that he has for her. Before I could say awww, Sheldon informs Amy that he got that speech from the Spiderman movie – still, Amy accepts Sheldon for who he is (for now) and is placated, and the date ends well. Even if Sheldon insists they go Dutch.
While Sheldon and Amy were going through their date, Leonard and Penny were trying to move forward after his proposal to them during sex. It’s cast an awkward pall over their relationship, and Leonard wants to deal with it, while Penny’s more interested in moving on. He puts together a really nice date for her – watching football on TV, while snacking on sliders and wings and drinking beer. He even scrawled “Go sports!” on his freshly shaven stomach. Before they can settle in to a night of cheering, Leonard wants to examine their relationship – Penny’s more interested in the game, and not self-introspection, and the two can’t settle into a comfortable groove. And then Raj shows up.
Yup, Raj shows up for his second date of the evening. Two dates in one night- not bad. Too bad he wasn’t invited to either one. Fortified by wine and champagne, he’s over his crippling inability to talk to women and makes himself at home, despite Leonard’s protests. Penny, wary of Leonard’s need to talk, invites Raj over. A little while later, Raj, even drunker, starts to counsel Penny and Leonard on their relationship, insisting that all is well. Like an inebriated Dr. Phil, he insists that Penny say “I love you” to Leonard. She refuses and a few minutes later throws him out of the apartment. Literally throws him out. Physically.
With no where else to go, Raj ends up at the comic book store. The friendly proprietor, Stuart (Kevin Sussman – who is now part of the main cast), is ready to close for the night. Raj offers to leave, but Stuart invites him to share a sadtini – which is coffee liquor in a Chewbacca cup – and yeah, there’s nothing sadder than that. He then puts on a little bit of music – bossa nova – and before they know it, both Stuart and Raj are gently moving to the beat, imagining that they’re away on a beach. Again, the writers threw in some homo-panic, as Raj, realizing that he’s on a third date, only with a guy (and no girl), hurries on out – but not before asking Stuart out to a dinner and movie the next evening. Stuart, in a sly reference to Joe E. Brown’s classic “Well, nobody’s perfect” line from Some Like It Hot, shrugs and says, “I could do worse” which was the first real laugh I got from the episode.
“The Date Night Variable” was a disappointing opening to the new season. With the exception of the beautiful Raj parts of the plot, the others just were standard sitcom fare – all well played by the game cast. Though, at this point, I wish they’d just write Penny out, so that Cuoco could be liberated from this yolk of a character and move on to something that uses her estimable talents better. Rauch also was strangely marginalized, only seen from a laptop monitor in space. Parsons’ performance is becoming rote, as is the writing for him; Bialik shines in her scenes, despite it all – and Amy still manages to delight me with her strange, earnest ways. This episode is probably the worst of the series, so far, but it’s only the first in the season – hopefully, the writers will be able to bounce back.